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It is peculiar how much power a doorbell can have over a man’s life. It hangs there mockingly, like an older brother holding a candy bar over his younger brother’s head, as if to say, “Not today, short stuff.” Sometimes, it fetches an unsuspecting customer to the threshold, perhaps interested in Easier and Better Living, or Drop Dead Deals! Other times, all it brings is dusty shadows to the door, ringing out hollow confirmation of an empty home. To a man who stood on the stoop to one of these dark homes, this doorbell was his last hope; the hope of a man whose oasis of luck was quickly evaporating, and who looked to this doorbell as his saving grace, the judge withholding his verdict. Howard Kent hadn’t sold anything all day, and he gazed up with sunken eyes at the oaken arbiter obstructing his path. He took a deep breath, mentally crossed his fingers, and pushed the button.
An electric bell buzzed angrily, keying off the harsh and grating barks of a dog unseen in the darkness, like a beast positioned to defend against any intruder with malicious intent. That was all, though. No soft patter of footsteps wrapped in tube socks rushing to see who it was, no questioning faces peering through the distorting window panes. Howard stepped back awkwardly, knowing what all of these signs meant, but also knowing that failure was not an option. “Come on… last house of the day. Ed is sure to wring my neck if I don’t bring something.” He stretched out his arm again, then hesitated, and walked down the steps away from the house. “Screw it,” he said, defeated. “There isn’t any point in this. The Lady gave up on me a long time ago.” For as long he could remember, Howard always believed that there was some sort of deity of fortune watching over him. However, times had been tough on him recently, and Lady Luck hadn’t been riding shotgun with him on his daily rounds like she used to. He strode down the lawns of all of the houses he had already been to that day, preaching the wonders of SupraGel hair products, and watched as porch lights flickered into illumination one by one along the uniform line. “Not a single sale all day… I already know what he’s going to say. This is not going to go over well… Best to call it in early and get it over with.” Howard pulled out his cell to punch in the number of his boss as he walked over to his old blue Chevy Malibu, hoping for mercy.
The dial tone sounded as Howard waited for the receiver to be picked up. For a nervous moment, thoughts of what to say raced through his mind, then a rough voice grumbled through the speaker, “You’re calling in an hour before you’re off the clock, Kent. You could be selling merchandise right now. You alright? Cause if you are, you’d better get back to work.”
For a moment, Howard didn’t know how to respond, and then, deciding to jump right into the fire: “I didn’t sell a single product today, Ed. Now, I know how that sounds, but I swear, people just aren’t into the stuff like they used to be. I was just calling to let you know ahead of time, because I wanted to tell you in person, rather than make you read it out of the books.”
There was a silence for a length of time that seemed to glide by like old clock hands weighted down in a quagmire of rust.
“You know I’m going to have to let you go for this, right Howard?”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. “Ed! You can’t be serious! You can’t just toss me out on the streets like that, I’ve worked for you for over four years now! I just had an off day, can’t you look past that and give me another chance?”
“Howard, if this had been just an off day for you, then maybe I could, but this has been going on for weeks. You don’t put in the hours that you’re supposed to, you haven’t been moving the products like you used to, and I swear to God that you came in drunk last Wednesday! Now I’ve got a business to run, and you’ve been a good salesman over the years, but I can’t keep carrying you around like this. You’re dead weight, and I’ve gotta cut you loose.”
Howard was speechless. He knew that Ed was going to be mad, but fire him? “I suppose my productivity has fallen a bit, and maybe I’ve been dipping too deep into my cups lately, but I can change that. Things have just been tough the past few months.”
Ed sighed. “I’ve heard all of this before from you, Howard, but here we are again. I hope you get your things in line, I really do, but things are tough all over. I’m sorry, but the word is final. I expect you to clean out your things by tomorrow. Have a nice life, Howard.”
And with that, the receiver clicked off, and Howard knew Ed had meant what he had said. No more job now, best start lining up in the unemployment offices. “Jeez… What am I going to do now? How am I going to tell Michelle about this?” He leans up against the old car with his hands behind his head. As he turns around to unlock his car, he spies a yellow slip tucked under the windshield wiper. “What now?” he asks to nobody in particular, as he wrenches the parking ticket from the windshield. “Perfect. That is just absolutely perfect. The cherry on top to a perfect day.” He rips open the door of the Chevy, nearly tearing it from the hinges. Fuming, Howard falls into the seat and starts the car. For a time, he just sits there, watching the sun begin to slip below the horizon, giving way to the dusk slowly consuming the retreating sunlight. “Frustrated and angry would not be the way to go into a conversation like this. I need to give myself a little while to cool down, and it would probably be best do this face to face with her.” So he flips on the radio, tunes it to the sounds of the Rolling Stones, and starts his drive back home, taking the scenic route and contemplating how he is going to break the news to his wife.
As Howard cruises the twilight streets, letting the voice of Robert Plant guide his way, his thoughts begin to drift, and for the first time in a while he finds himself thinking about his parents. He wonders what they would think of him now, driving through towns in a Malibu after getting fired from his job as a door-to-door shampoo salesman. His mother had been a sweet woman, who gave all the love to him that a mother could give, but unfortunately died when Howard was ten from sickle-cell anemia. He didn’t remember much of her, but he would never forget some of her last words to him given from the hospital bed. “You’re going be great, Howie,” she had said to him, in whispers that spoke of the extreme agony that she had been in. “Just follow your heart, and you’ll end up in the right place. You’re my sweet little boy. Never give up hope.” He thinks to himself if she would be proud of him now, knowing what he has actually amounted to.
After his mother’s death, Howard’s father, Pat, started drinking and quickly fell down the unforgiving road of alcoholism. Pat would frequently come home after a long day of work, drink a few beers, then drink a few more and rage about the wrongs that the world had done him. Sometimes, he would use his son as a vent for that anger. As Howard grew older, the arguments with his dad grew worse and worse, until finally, at the ripe age of seventeen, good ol’ dad said that it was time for him to go and make something out of himself, and kicked Howard out of the house. With the absence of his mother, the old man got bitter and the son stayed angry, and the distance between the two never really healed. A little more than a week before Howard’s thirty-second birthday, he got a call from a doctor that said his father had passed away from liver disease. Howard was the only relative that lived within a two state radius, and the man had died alone. “Look at me now, dad.” Howard said aloud. “It looks like you were right. From where I’m standing, it seems that you were right, that all I’ve got on my shoulders is rocks in my head.”
Howard had not expected to, but as he pulled up to his house, he felt a few tears run down his face. He wiped them off and got out of his car, crossing the walkway and approaching the doorway. He was thinking about how great a cold one would be after such a long day as he bent oven and fished out a worn steel key from under the doormat, and turned the key in the lock. Not much was more appealing than the idea of sliding back into a comfy chair and forgetting about all of this for a little while, he thinks to himself. As Howard stepped through the threshold, he called out for his wife.
“Michelle! Sweetheart, I’m home!” No answer. A little strange, but not unheard of. She sometimes went out after work to pick up some groceries. But he notices that her shoes are still here, which makes things a little stranger. “Hon, are you home?”
He hears footsteps upstairs, and, admittedly a little cautious, he starts walking up the steps. As he reaches the upper level, he is almost knocked back down the staircase that he just climbed by his speeding wife.
“Aahh!” she shrieks. “Howie! I wasn’t expecting you home so early. You surprised me!”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I got off of work a little early, and I thought I would come home and see you.” He offers a half-crooked smile. It wasn’t a complete lie. He definitely had gotten off of work earlier than he expected. “You’re in a hurry, where are you off to? Is it time for your weekly night out with the girls?” At this time, Howard notices that she has a hand tucked behind her back. “Got something?” he asks, looking at her quizzically.
Michelle looks down, averting her big blue eyes from his gaze. “Oh Howie… this is not how I wanted it to happen… I didn’t know you were going to be home early.”
“Didn’t want what to happen? What’s going on, Shell?” His initially questioning looks are now turning a bit more towards alarm. She turns towards him more, and he can see that she is holding a suitcase. “What’s that for?”
“I’m leaving you, Howie.” The shock numbs him to his core, and now he almost feels as though she really did knock him down that flight of stairs. “I’m sorry. I was going to leave you a note explaining everything, with a list of papers to fill out for a divorce.”
Howard looked at her again, completely befuddled, feeling like he just got hit by a semi truck. She still doesn’t return his gaze. “You…what? Divorce?”
“Yes, Howard,” replying almost impatiently. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t go on living like this with you. I need something more out of my life than a humdrum existence with a shampoo salesman. I’ve been having an affair with Clyde Rourke, living down the street. You might have noticed if you weren’t so engrossed in your beer and your chair every day. The routine just isn’t enough for me. I’m sorry.”
For the second time that day, Howard the soon-to-be divorced ex-shampoo salesman is struck completely dumbfounded. “You’re sorry? Two and a half years and your sorry?” He looks at her, downtrodden and beaten. “I can’t believe this. If anything, I’m sorry. It all comes down to this, huh? More than two and a half years of wasted time.”
For the first time she looks back up at him, and their eyes meet, but not in a way that they ever have before. It is full of astronomical indifference. “I’m sorry, but this is how it’s going to be, and I’ve tried talking to you. I’ve tried telling you how I’ve been feeling, and you’ve shut me out every time. I’m sorry,” she adds quietly, again, as if to aim the arrow true and bury it home.
He looks at her hard, one final time, then looks away, turns around, and walks down the steps. Michelle asks him where he is going, but he walks on, heedless to her words and utterly broken. He begins walking towards his steely Chevy Malibu, but then moves past it, like a ghost oblivious to everything but its one destination. Howard can hear her calling out his name, but as he rounds the bend of his neighborhood and advances into the next one over, his one focus is to put as much distance between himself and everything that happened today as possible, including his now soon-to-be ex-wife.
Howard walks on sidewalks and streets, grassy areas and paved roads, seeing people that he’s gone to church with and people whom he’s never met before in his life. The sun begins to set while he travels, and eventually he comes to a forest. With no destination in mind, he says to himself, “Why not?” and steps forward along a path through the woods. After going a short distance into the woods, he spies the stump of what was likely an ancient oak, and sits down. He looks out in front of him, through the golden dancing foliage, to a far off lake that he can see through the trees. It shimmers in the falling sunshine, seeming to beckon to him while he sits on his stump, resting after his long journey to nowhere special. It calls out to him, but as he meanders there, thoughts of the things that his wife and his boss come rushing back to him, sprinkled with thoughts of his parents.
“I’ve gone and made quite a mess for myself.” Howard sighs, alone in his woods, all by himself on his lone stump. “Maybe they were right. I’ve gone and lost it and become a man that people don’t even want to look at anymore. Now I really am alone.” He looked down at the dirt, and then bent his head backward, turning his gaze to the sky. “Are you happy now? Have you had your fun watching me twist and struggle, and loose everything? I sympathize with anyone who thought that they might find a benevolent in you, Lady, because you truly are one fickle mistress!” At this, Howard throws his hands wide, and in doing so, looses his balance on the stump that he is sitting on. Letting out a startled gasp, he falls backwards, end over end down a steep hill, twisting and turning, narrowly missing trees and rocks as he tumbles to the base of the small cliff.
“Umnph!” Howard lands hard on his butt and sprawls out in the fallen leaves, battered and bruised, with a trickle of blood running from his forehead and scrapes all along his arms and legs. Disoriented, he tries to get to his feet, but finds that standing and putting pressure on his left ankle causes him extreme discomfort and pain. He falls back down onto his butt.“Ow, that hurts. This is great, wonderful really. Exactly what I needed.” He sits there in the wet leaves, with only the sound of a gentle breeze through the trees and the falling of leaves to keep him company. “That was a long fall… I guess I’m lucky that I didn’t kill myself rolling down that hill. Those are some pretty sharp rocks,” he says, looking up at the face that he came down. “I wonder what it would be like to just lie down here and never get up?” He falls over onto his back from his sitting position, and looks upside-down at a large oak tree, with a large knot in the tendrils of its roots, wrapping into the earth.
“What’s that?” He rolls over, looking at what appears to be a weathered duffle bag tucked inside of the knoll, barely visible unless you happened to be looking at it lying on your belly. He lifts himself up a little ways, and half army crawls over to it, curious. Howard reaches out and pulls the dark blue bag from its snug home under the tree. Pulling his legs underneath him, sitting cross-legged, he reaches for the zipper and unzips the midline of the bag.
“Holy cow!” He nearly jumps up, not believing what he sees, then remembers his ankle and keeps his body under control. Inside of the bag are wads of money! Hundred dollar bills, fifties, all stuffed to the brim. “I don’t believe this!! This is incredible! What a change of luck!” His exclamations ring emptily over the forest. He falls backwards again, into an array of leaves and sticks, but for different reasons this time. Howard lies there, looking up into the canopy and a darkening sky, almost the color of the bag that he had discovered. Thoughts of his mother and father again drift into his head, but this time, he thinks about what they may have wanted for him. A wife who cheats? A dead end job? Are these the things that his whole life was going to amount to? These are all questions that Howard was seeing in a different light. That was not a kind of living to aspire to. Perhaps what he had thought was the worst day of his life was something different entirely. How would be the best way to move forward from this? Most of his ties were now broken, so perhaps it was the opportunity to start fresh and new. “What a life this is.” Howard said to himself. “If there really is going to be change and a new start, then I couldn’t do it based off of a bad deed by taking something that isn’t mine under the guise of ‘finders-keepers’.” Whatever circumstances the money lay under, it was not his to have and Howard didn’t want to get mixed up in it. Instead, he got to his feet (which really weren’t that bad off, after all) and started his ascension back up the steep incline. When he got to the top of the hill, he looked out over the lake. The sun had set, and the water was turning a much darker hue. Howard smiled, and began his trek back to his home.